Wednesday, December 12, 2018

album review: 'hill climber' by vulfpeck

So here's something a little alarming about my job as a critic, and I'll walk you through the scenario. Say you're given a band, primarily promoted through Bandcamp so you'd assume they'd be a small-to-midsize act, and you've never heard of them. Fine enough, that's not uncommon if they're a step outside the mainstream or never have gotten Pitchfork coverage, so you start digging through their back catalog... only to discover that this band might be a lot bigger than you could have expected, with collaborations with named critical darlings and a social media presence that might actually guarantee an audience for the review... made all the more awkward by the fact that you really didn't like what you heard going through that back catalog!

And yes, this was my experience with Vulfpeck, an American funk act who broke out in the 2010s and have quietly been pumping out albums throughout the decade. And when you see the list of session players who have worked with them, it's a little astonishing that I hadn't heard of them sooner. Indeed, I can imagine some audiences are more familiar with how they were backing Darren Criss on his 2013 tour than the fact they had worked with Bootsy Colins, Bernard Purdie, and David T. Walker. Of course, if you're in the music industry you probably know them for having trolled Spotify in 2014 by putting an entirely silent album online in order to game streaming, which got them about twenty thousand dollars before the album got pulled, but in all due honesty, there are points I'd prefer to listen to that than their larger recorded output. Yeah, this is where things get awkward because I would struggle to say I'm a fan of Vulfpeck at all: limp production, underwhelming vocals unless they pulled up a credible guest, and with generally embarrassing lyrics that might just wind up as some of the most safe and sterile attempts at funk I've heard in a long time. Yeah, the playing is good, but with no edge or intensity or sense of greater texture, it got grating fast, and when you couple it with their social media presence which makes it hard to tell if they're a joke act that just so happens to have a few ringers who can play really well... well, that's not the sort of act I really feel the need to cover. That said, they slowed things down significantly for their album last year - it was more limp and boring than actively grating like The Beautiful Game was but at least was tolerable - but this new album has gotten some good reception, so what did we get from Hill Climber?

Honestly, I have no idea what anyone wants me to say here: it's another Vulfpeck album, I'm not a fan of it, and the only reason I'm covering it here instead of on the Trailing Edge is because I'd like to use it as an object lesson surrounding what I personally like to hear in funk music, especially when this is a group that is as well-connected and savvy as players as they are. That said, while I will won't say I really enjoyed this project much, I will say that its second half was measurably more tolerable than the first - not sure it's enough to make this passable, but it gets close enough at points that I can see why some might like this.

So let's deal with the first obvious issue and why I really couldn't stand the first half of Hill Climber: Theo Katzman's vocals. And what's annoying is that I know exactly what he's trying to do - he doesn't have the timbre or raw firepower to deliver funk with actual bite, so he's opting for thinner, quivering, overdubbed crooning - already a dangerous route, given how much I like my funk to have some soul in it and this is a considerable step away from that. But what becomes abundantly clear is that he just doesn't have the tightness or force of charisma in his delivery to grab the ear - his tone is reedy and limp, his attempts at sensuality are painfully underwhelming, and what's worse is how it carries the thinness of someone who either won't commit to his delivery out of ironic detachment, or can't commit and thus should not be behind the microphone! And while I won't say Mike Viola's guest performance is much better on 'For Survival' - more a factor of bad production choices and lyrics and just being a lousy song as a whole - he's at least got a bit of rasp and texture in his crooning to make it stick, even if he's stuck singing opposite what sounds like a country slide guitar timbre and the same sanitized but awkward peppiness that I've never liked about Vulfpeck. And while I'm on this territory, the lyrics continue to be pretty bad too, mostly a factor of our frontman delivering them with the sort of underwhelming lack of charisma to feel remotely convincing. Mostly they come across as bland - 'Half Of The Way' springs to mind - or stupid - the overloaded animal references on 'Darwin Derby' are a hell of a lot less funny than anyone thinks as a lot of try-hard white guy weirdness, take it from someone who knows that - but they can get worse. Take 'Lonely Town', which is the sort of post-breakup blues that might have had pathos if it wasn't delivered with the sort of theatrical vaudeville cadence and language that demands some character and certainly not those unfortunate stabs at falsetto. Then opposite what could have been a drippy Michael Buble instrumental on 'Love Is A Beautiful Thing' we get this noxious bit of jealousy where he professes love isn't so beautiful when it's with somebody else, and only is it nowhere close to being slick or soulful to make it work - look up Kyle Craft's 'Slick & Delta Queen' if you want the prime example of how to do this right - there's no joke to make the subversion stick, and nothing from this Mike Posner-wannabe to sell it! Then there's 'For Survival', the sort of 'love me because the world is ending' song I've long found tiresome, but it hits the weird spot with its language choices of how our protagonist wants to be packaged for survival that isn't outrageous enough to be funny, but is too slapdash to feel sincere - it's just wonky and cringeworthy, and not in a way that can even be enjoyed all that ironically.

Now thankfully, the second half of this project is all instrumental, and simply for getting rid of the bad writing and vocals it takes a measurable uptick, but this is where we get into my other issue with Vulfpeck and really what's prevented me from liking them their entire career: the production and arrangements. Now I'll fully admit that I've got more of a funk rock or funk metal preference when it comes to this style of music, I like there to be some fire in the arrangement, but since Vulfpeck have opted for the sort of low-key, lounge funk that's more about the jam and vibes, that's not really on the table. But there's a way of capturing that tone without sounding chintzy and limp as all hell, and it's hard for me not to blame the production here. I get that their brand of record is stripped back and minimal and is actively trying to produce the live sound in their recording to highlight virtuoso playing, but that approach works best when you're trying to amp up some level of intensity or you're going to subtly emphasize specific elements in the mix for showy solos or do something interesting within the mastering process to add distinctive texture or depth to the mix to give it some swell or presence. And given that Wulfpeck aren't really doing any of this, it leads to mixes that wind up lacking a lot of character or dynamics to cultivate anything but the most minimal, chintzy tones, especially in the keyboards that can slip into utterly limp organ embellishments on 'Lonely Town' which clash really awkwardly with the acoustic groove or just sound drippy as all hell on 'Love Is A Beautiful Thing', and that's not counting on the jaunty melodies punching into 'Darwin Derby' or 'For Survival'. And things sadly don't really get better when we get the rubbery tones of 'Soft Parade' or that incredibly stiff clash between that tinny acoustic line on 'Disco Ulysses' with the stronger bass, or how clicking and lacking in body the acoustics and pianos on 'The Cup Stacker' can feel', especially with a bassline that fat. Hell, the mix only really came alive for me with 'It Gets Funkier IV', and even then, for as much as I respected the shred, the keys and acoustics sounded chopped to ribbons and not allowed to pick up much of anything. I guess if I'm going to compliment them on anything it's that the bass can indeed feel funky and the percussion lines actually have a surprising amount of character and tonal richness, but if anything that highlights how competent mixing or better tonal choice could lead to a much more interesting project overall!

So on some level, I'm walking away from this album a bit at a loss. It's got the raw components of decent funk music - minus the vocals or lyrics - but it feels way too jittery and stiff to cultivate a solid vibe, lacking any of the soul or raw edge that could make for a fiery performance, or even much of the progressive chops in song structure, tone, or dynamics to get truly challenging. What it's more evidence of is that if the playing is good - and let me stress, these guys can play - and a good online gimmick can surface, people will get behind anything, even you're not assembling any particularly good songs. If anything, it feels more like extremely talented studio craftsmen trying to assemble something that should come organically, and yet without quite enough structural skills to get the components to truly click. And thus, while I can absolutely imagine this'll play better live, I'm still giving this a strong 4/10 and I can't really recommend it. Or let me put it like this: when Charlie Puth can deliver more interesting and visceral funk than you, you might have a problem - but hey, they have their audience. I only question what'll happen when that audience realizes that hill they're climbing will never translate into a proper mountain.

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